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Gabriel Sanchez Talks ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’

The LOOK Effects vfx supervisor discusses integrating miniatures, stop-motion, live action and more on Wes Anderson’s new film.

All images © 2014 Fox Searchlight Pictures and provided courtesy of LOOK Effects.

Two frenetic chase scenes as well as numerous sequences filled with seamless integration of miniatures with matte paintings, digital environments and particle effects were just some of more than 340 shots LOOK Effects produced for Grand Budapest Hotel, their fifth collaboration with iconic director Wes Anderson. LOOK was also instrumental in helping secure substantial film funding with a regional grant from Baden-Württemberg’s MFG.

VFX supervisor Gabriel Sanchez led the LOOK team, working primarily from their German studio. I recently had a chance to speak to Gabriel about the project. He shared his take on the projects many challenges as well as the back and forth dynamic used to make sure the director got the distinctive look he was after.

Dan Sarto: So what was your role on the film? What were the main sequences LOOK worked on?

Gabriel Sanchez: My role was a little different than a traditional VFX supervisor. We’ve worked with Wes on a number of projects in different capacities. I first worked with Wes on The Life Aquatic, then on The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom. We’re comfortable with the type materials they’re going to give us to work with. I didn’t go on set this shoot. My role was mostly in post. We did almost all the work in our German studio. I handled a few little DI and tech notes afterwards in the LA studio.

DS: Did you guys get any previs to work from?

GS: There was some minor previs done that we got to work with. Mostly, we’d get images with notes saying what the director was looking for. A note might say, “I’d like to do a matte painting here. What do you think?”  Or we’d get notes saying by the time they got to do a shoot, things had changed from the original plan, so what will it take to fix? There was also some minor look development done on a couple challenging sequences where some problems came up.

DS: What was the overall scope of the work you did on the film?

GS: We were involved in a number of areas. We provided integration of miniatures. Wes uses a lot of miniatures to setup sequences. The Grand Budapest hotel is a miniature. We were given shots and needed to create matte paintings and integrate them to make it all look a real as possible. We’d add atmosphere, lighting, trying to make it as close to photoreal as possible. Then we’d get notes that the director didn’t want to lose the quality of the miniature, that he wanted people to know it was a miniature. “It’s too real.” We needed to find the right balance to get the “charm” that Wes was looking for. We spent considerable time adjusting to keep the charm of the miniature but still getting the fine textures and atmosphere of being set in the mountain range, or in the snow. There were two miniature hotels, one from the 1930s and one from the late 1960s. We dealt with miniatures for the Gabelmeister, which leads up to the chase sequence. They made a miniature for the dome of the observatory that could spin mechanically while shooting against a green screen.

The other big category of shots we did was integrating stop-motion. Little Claymation characters. They would setup a sheet of plywood, complete with the environment of snow, snow banks and a little bobsled run, all with little characters that they moved and shot in stop-motion. We had to do speed changes to sling those together, apply the proper amount of motion blur as if it were caught on camera.

We did a bunch of greenscreen comping. Many shots required integration of several components. For example, in the chase sequence, we did digital matte paintings, pulled greenscreens, used a miniature backdrop, used stop-motion and added in digital particles to create snow flying at the camera, or mist whizzing by. The Gabelmeister and the chase sequence were big chunks of work. For the Gabelmeister, we did matte paintings of the snowy Alps for the mountain backdrop. We had miniature gondolas, the observatory and actors shot against a greenscreen. Then on the chase, we either had little stop-motion characters or actors shot against a greenscreen, depending upon the POV. We had to make this all appear together seamlessly.

We also did a bunch of invisible effects, which increased our workload probably 50%. We didn’t know we needed to handle that until we started working with what had actually been caught on camera. We had to do a lot of element removal, re-timing and sometimes redoing the animation. During the chase sequence, there’s a scene where the character Zero is jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Even though they shot it on greenscreen, they wanted him for example to jump higher, to change his arc, to change his trajectory, to change the spot where he landed. It was an interesting challenge to redo the animation to give the director the look he wanted.

DS: How long were you on the project?

GS: It turned out to be around 10 months. I was in Germany for 7 of those months.

DS: How big was your team?

GS: It fluctuated. But for the most part it was around a dozen.

DS: What were the main challenges you faced on this project?

GS: The main challenge was dealing with the variety of effects. They used three or four different types of cameras. They used different lenses. They shot with anamorphic and spherical lenses, they shot RED, digital as well as actual film. We had to digitize some film stock. It was a challenge to create the pipeline for each instance. Each shot that came in, we had to make a quick analysis to see which pipeline it fell into. That then led into the variety of shots we worked on. Did it fall into the miniature world? Did it fall into pulling greenscreens and integrating a matte painting? Since the chase sequences incorporated almost every technique on every shot, they were the most challenging, though they were the most enjoyable. Bringing all those elements together. We helped set the tone and look of that part of the story. It’s one of those satisfying challenges.

DS: In the course of this project, were there any “geek” moments that required you to figure out new techniques or technical innovations you hadn’t used before?

GS: Part of this project actually required me to reach back into my old bag of tricks. I came up in the business as a compositor. I originally learned on a Quantel and then moved over to Flame and Inferno. I dealt with episodics and commercials. For example, back in the day, for commercials, you didn’t have to worry about matching film stock grains. On film, you did. Since this project had such a variety of shot sources, including film, we had to take those sorts of issues into consideration. I had to educate our team on how to work in such an environment, on how to use these old 2D cheats to make it look accurate.

In addition, for the miniatures, we were given shots as well as tons of still images taken from different angles. If we wanted to do any enhancements or zoom in, sometimes we had to use 3D to create some simple geometry models so we could literally project the lighting changes to make the shadows look like they were crawling on the surface of the miniatures. We’d get 24 frames with no lighting changes and they’d want to stretch it to a couple seconds, or use slow motion.

DS: So you recreated some of the stop-motion elements in 3D, lit them and then comped them in?

GS: Yah. In its simplest form, we recreated the basic geometry in a 3D model, applied and moved the light source, rendered that out as an alpha, then used it as a layer. Other times, when Wes said it looked flat or he couldn’t see the detail, we couldn’t just use an alpha to enhance the lighting or shadows. We had to take that a bit further. So we’d put ridges into the model so the light felt like it was going into the crevices or wrapping around the object.

DS: Tell me about the dynamic working with such an iconic director as Wes Anderson.

GS: Wes is the type director that really knows exactly what he’s looking for. If you hit that spot, he’s happy and he lets you run with it. There are other times when he’s trying to develop a look and there can be a constant back and forth until we get there. With the chase sequence, after discussing what he was looking for, we tried a couple different things. In my mind I’m thinking this looks like a James Bond chase sequence. You can feel the temp. You can feel the speed. He’s trying to get the bad guy. Doing the effects, for example when Wes said “Let’s add atmosphere,” I could have added a bed of fog, but we needed to make it look like it’s zooming past the camera, or at times it has a shape or it feels like we’re going through a tunnel even though we’re on flat land. How does the atmosphere and the snow look? Do you feel the speed of the chase? Our work enhanced the “feel” of the chase sequences.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.